Interview: Lynette Ong on “Outsourcing Repression” in Demolitions and Land Seizures

Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, joins CDT to discuss her new book Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China. In Outsourcing Repression, Ong investigates the methods by which the Chinese state has deployed nonstate actors, both violent and nonviolent, to seize farmland and demolish urban homes when it lacked the legitimate authority to do so. During fieldwork in Yunnan, Zhengzhou, and elsewhere, Ong examined the sticks, carrots, and persuasive methods through which the state exerts its influence on society without introducing its formal agents. Ong found that the state’s deployment of anonymous thugs-for-hire was an expedient way to “accomplish dishonorable and dirty work” while maintaining plausible deniability about its connections to low-level violence. The book also investigated the role of “social brokers” who mobilize their neighbors into complying with the state’s demolition goals by drawing on their social capital. Her findings have implications beyond China’s contentious urbanization process, shedding light on China’s “People’s War” against COVID-19, the “Sweeping Black” campaign against organized crime, and its future political trajectory. Ong concludes her book with a rumination on the state of fieldwork in China, which has been imperiled by China’s “authoritarian turn.”

China Digital Times: When a local government wants to demolish a village or a housing block, what tools do they have at their disposal to achieve their goals? Could you give a brief overview of the methods you researched in your book? 

Lynette Ong: The two strategies that are described in the book are, number one, outsourcing violence to thugs-for-hire. This sort of violence is low-level violence, as well as the threat of violence. You’re not seeing a bloodbath but very low-level violence. It is often intimidation that amounts to almost using violence. The other strategy is outsourcing nonviolent repression to grassroots brokers. Nonviolent repression refers to persuasion; trying to mobilize the masses through nonviolent means.

CDT: Who are these thugs-for-hire? 

Ong: These thugs look like they’re portrayed on the book cover. These are anonymous people. It could be anyone on the street. These are not individuals that we can identify. They are zhangsanlisi (张三李四, or “any Tom, Dick, or Harry”) who is willing to sell his muscle power for profit. These people usually don’t have regular jobs, or they are unemployed, and therefore they do odd jobs and get engaged in demolition projects. This is the nature of the thugs. They are very different from, let’s say, organized mafias in Russia.

CDT: What does low-level violence actually mean? 

Ong: Low-level violence usually means threat of violence, often short of actual violence. 

CDT: One of your findings is that even though thugs-for-hire are most associated with violent acts, in extreme cases causing bodily harm or even death, their deployment does not cause citizens to mobilize through street protests as much as other agents do. Why is this the case?

Ong: This is my key statistical finding. Drawing from over 2,000 cases, I found that even though thugs were most engaged in causing bodily harm and death, they’re actually not likely to mobilize street protests. My rationale is that, unlike the public security and unlike the police, they don’t wear any uniform. Unlike government officials, village officials, township government officials and other agents, they don’t have a government identity. So if they do bad things, they are not seen as part of the system. This provides the authorities who hire them plausible deniability. I think because of that, it doesn’t provoke public anger to the extent that abusive officials’ behavior would. 

CDT: Is that because abusive officials’ behavior is viewed as a violation of Chinese citizens’ rights?

Ong: If government officials were to use similar means to demolish houses, this would be seen as a conflict between state and society—a predatory state, right? But if you have this anonymous person wearing black with no identity doing this to society it is just another form of crime. 

CDT: Another one of your findings is that violent cases peaked in 2013, two years after the passage of a national ordinance governing demolitions on state-owned land. Has the use of thugs correspondingly gone down?

Ong: The national ordinance has clearly played a role in that. The law says that no entity other than government officials can be directly involved in urban housing demolition. Superficially, it removed real estate developers from being directly involved [in demolitions]. When local governments get involved, their reputation is at stake. Even though the developer might be doing the job behind the scenes, they are being more careful of the tactics they use, which is why I think we see less violence and less conflict overall after the ordinance was passed. 

CDT: You describe three types of brokers in your book: social brokers, political brokers, and economic brokers. Who are social brokers and what role do they play in mobilizing the masses?

Ong: Social brokers draw on their social capital to conduct persuasion, that is to mobilize the masses to obtain compliance without violence. They are different from political brokers because political brokers have some degree of affiliation with the state, such as the people who work in the neighborhood committee. Those people have some degree of state affiliation. Social brokers are people who draw on their own social capital to conduct persuasion. Economic brokers, on the other hand, are the individuals who are out to make a profit by connecting the state and society. They are akin to “ticket scalpers”, thus very different from social brokers. 

CDT: Can you give me an example of your stereotypical social broker? 

Ong: Social brokers are primarily volunteers who do a range of tasks for the government such as patrolling alleyways to prevent crime or delivering food to their neighbors.

CDT: When the government decides it wants to demolish a housing block, what role do social brokers play in that process?

Ong: The government mobilizes volunteers, first of all, to obtain information about families. It can be very detailed and intimate information about families, such as the relationship between a husband and wife or a father and son. This information can be important because it allows the state to design a package that is more acceptable to the family and gives the state an idea as to what pressure points local governments can use to press the families to give in to government demands.

CDT: Let’s discuss Chengdu, which innovated the zigaiwei (自治改造委员会/自改委, or “self-governed renovation committee”). What are zigaiwei and how did they transform the nature of conflict in demolition projects?

Ong: Zigaiwei bring together various actors such as political and social brokers, as well as families who are willing to relocate. These people will then go persuade, or mobilize the masses, those who are unwilling to relocate to sign papers [agreeing to demolition]. In a way, that allows the local government to divorce itself from actual implementation, giving the impression that the demolition is initiated, as well as carried out, by the community—with the implication that any sort of conflict that arises from demolition, and any sort of pressure that the committee puts on the unwilling, becomes a conflict between society members. That allows the state to stay away from it. Zigaiwei transformed the nature of conflicts from state and society to society and society. If anything goes wrong, it has got nothing to do with the state. This is the essence of outsourcing repression.

CDT: Has this model been adopted by other cities across China?

Ong: It was first adopted in Chengdu. Other cities then sent teams of government officials to visit and try to learn from that experience. Zigaiwei is probably the most publicized sort of non-state demolition model, but different local governments have come up with their own schemes that take the essence of zigaiwei. I wrote about monichaiqian (模拟拆迁, or “simulated demolition”) in Chapter Six, which also follows the same idea. It’s about the community initiating demolition and the community itself doing the mobilization which used to be done by the state at great effort and cost. Early bird benefits, or carrots, are given to those who are willing to move. These people have the incentive to do the mobilization on behalf of the state because if everyone agrees, then they get a payout. 

CDT: Who are huangniu, literally “cattle,” and how are they different from social brokers?

Ong: Huangniu are economic or market brokers that connect the state and society. They are entrepreneurs who want to make money and they do it by establishing relationships with the state demolition office and with their clients, who are people who want to bargain for more compensation. They bring these two people together. In between, they provide a suite of other services like fake certificates—of divorce, marriage, etc.—that allow their clients to get more compensation legitimately. They enable corruption that allows for better compensation. This is what they contribute to the transaction; [without them,] state and society wouldn’t agree with each other and the project would be held up. 

CDT: Why do some citizens employ huangniu, while others eschew their services?

Ong: Some citizens who refuse to relocate or refuse to sign papers, do not do so because of compensation issues. They might think their rights are not being respected, procedures are not being followed, or that government officials are being corrupt—a whole range of reasons that have nothing to do with compensation. These people have no reason to engage with huangniu. Even if they want better compensation, they might not want to participate in corrupt deals because there are risks involved. Some people just do it out of principle, they think: “My neighbors with similar conditions are getting X amount of money, I want to get the same amount of money. This is a matter of principle. Why should I share my profit with someone else to engage in the market?” So people don’t do it for a range of reasons. 

CDT: Let’s look at this in a comparative perspective. How do Chinese thugs-for-hire differ from goondas in India. In India, you write that goondas hinder the state’s penetration of society whereas thugs-for-hire actually bolster state capacity in China. Why?

Ong: Because thugs-for-hire in China are much weaker violent agents than goondas or Russia’s mafias. The goondas are so powerful in some areas, the colonies or slums of India, that they become the local governance in a sense. They themselves govern the slums. There’s an absence of state in the slums. But in China, thugs-for-hire can never grow to be that powerful. Why? Because the state is extremely powerful. The CCP is extremely powerful. In a way, the “middle layer” in India is much thicker and more powerful than in China. My book really talks about the middle layer between state and society in China, which is my contribution. But in a comparative sense, this middle layer in China is actually so much weaker in comparison with countries such as India.

CDT: Whereas the Indian middle layer can exercise political autonomy…

Ong: Correct … to the extent that the state actually has to listen to them because they deliver votes to local politicians.

CDT: Is that just a product of democracy? Goondas are able to control local elections so the government must listen, whereas in China there are no meaningful local elections? You deal with this issue in your book when discussing Xi Jinping’s “Sweeping Black” campaign, “village tyrants,” and local elections. 

Ong: I think elections give society a better capacity to organize itself. The goondas’ capacity to organize voting blocks gives them power, compared to an autocracy where such mechanisms would not exist. Fundamentally, China is a powerful state. I’m not saying Singapore is a good comparison with China but if you look at Singapore’s elections, the state is also very powerful. The ruling political party is very powerful. So even with elections, it’s difficult to imagine any societal organization that is able to organize society into a block that could hold the state ransom. Democracy has something to do with it but it is not the only explanation and it is no guarantee.

CDT: So this “middle layer,” I think it’s a very interesting concept. How is this different from civil society? Is this a form of Chinese civil society? 

Ong: Civil societies are organized societies. They are registered societal groups to the extent that in China the state can regulate them. But, the middle layer that I talked about is the informal middle layer between state and society. They are not organized in any way, shape, or form. The difference between thugs-for-hire and the mafia is that they are not organized. Social brokers, they are not organized. They are volunteers.

CDT: And there’s no connection between, let’s say, a social broker in one neighborhood and another neighborhood. These are people who don’t know each other and don’t share the same political goals. 

Ong: Correct. The strength of social brokers is embedded within their particular community. They can only be effective in that particular community. If they go to the next community, they don’t know the people. They don’t have social capital. They become a nobody.

CDT: You wrote about residents who are not local—migrant workers—who complain that they are never invited to join zigaiwei or join efforts to mobilize the masses just because they have no local standing—even though they might have interest in joining. Why do communities not invite these people to join?

Ong: Imagine you’re in a chengzhongcun, (城中村, or a village-in-the-city) … migrant workers are merely renters. If houses get demolished, they can move to another chengzhongcun, even though it’s mafan (麻烦, or “an annoyance”) for them. In a way, they have no stake in the game. They don’t own property. They don’t lose any money if they do not get compensation. They can simply move away, although they can also be called upon to support certain campaigns.

CDT: Thugs-for-hire are disorganized. They’re just informal. You have a great list of descriptors calling them ruffians, hooligans, people recently released from jail, etc. But you also say the “Sweeping Black” campaign was, in some ways, potentially an effort to prevent thugs-for-hire from turning into organized mafias or to break up thugs-for-hire that had already successfully made the transition into powerful criminal syndicates. Could you elaborate on that?

Ong: I would word it slightly differently in the sense that I think the “Sweeping Black” campaign targeted a range of underground, violent, “black” actors ranging from, at the very bottom of the ring, thugs-for-hire up to very sophisticated mafias—sophisticated meaning they’re actually organized heishehui (黑社会, or “mafias”). They actually belong to heishehui factions. They have rules which govern how the organizations work. They operate casinos. They operate businesses. They sometimes try to bribe and sometimes try to do it legitimately. They collude with the state, with local governments. The “Sweeping Black” campaign is trying to sever the relationship between criminal, violent actors and local governments. In a way, thugs-for-hire sit at the very bottom of the range of actors that they are trying to target. I see the “Sweeping Black” campaign as a vindication of my argument about thugs-for-hire because Xi Jinping saw these people at the bottom who could evolve into more sophisticated mafias. I’m sure there are sophisticated mafias around in China but that is not what my book is about. Xi Jinping is trying to sever the ties between local governments and these thugs-for-hire. He saw that they could pose a threat to the party’s legitimacy.

CDT: It could turn into a situation like India. 

Ong: Correct. These people have the potential to become more powerful than local governments. 

CDT: In your conclusion, you write that ethnographic research in the Xi era is nearly impossible, whereas in the Hu-Wen era you were free to roam the streets and walk into government offices, although you did face barriers as well. Can you provide any specific instances?

Ong: I can’t provide a specific example but I can talk about how I think the Chinese studies field has changed, which is the key message. I think China studies is undergoing a structural shift. For the past 30 years, our main primary source of data has actually been the field, China. That has more or less closed off now. The pandemic has made it worse in the short- and the medium-term. Part of this book draws on data from media but media is also increasingly censored, [with a corresponding increase in] self-censorship. Robust research relies on accurate data. If you don’t have data, how do we then produce research? This is a question that I think China scholars will have to grapple with. I’m lucky that my book is done. This is a big question that I need to think about as far as my next book is concerned. I think China scholars will have to grapple with it. 

CDT: Your book is dedicated “to all those who received the short end of the stick in the state’s ambitious scheme.” Any final thoughts you wish to share on the plight of those you got to know during the course of your research?

Ong: I think China’s ambitious urbanization scheme is the envy of many people. It has enriched a small number of Chinese citizens, including real estate developers, local government officials, and some urban households, those who engage with huangniu for instance. But I think a lot of people were made worse off because they didn’t have the power to bargain with the state and they didn’t have the power to organize themselves—into collective actions, for instance.

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